AZUSA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific is finding any and every method possible to win games in the past month – using a last second technical foul, an ill-advised intentional foul; even conventional methods, like hot shooting, have worked from time-to-time.
Tonight they added a new twist to victory, one that extended their winning streak to a season-high 6 games.
Westmont College missed 11 free throws, including one with 10 seconds left in overtime that would knotted the score, to allow Azusa Pacific to sneak away with a crucial 86-83 Golden State Athletic Conference victory Tuesday evening in the Felix Event Center. The win, combined with The Master’s loss to Fresno Pacific, puts Azusa Pacific alone in third place in the GSAC at the half way point of the conference slate, 2 games behind front-runners Biola University and Concordia University.
Junior forward Caleb Burgess poured in a game-high 20 points and junior center Reggie Owens notched his fifth double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Cougars to their eighth straight win over Westmont and their 13th in the past 14 meetings.
“There were a million things out there that we could have done and opportunities for anyone to take a hold of this game,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “The biggest opportunity for us, though, was their missed free throws. The difference tonight was Westmont at the free throw line.”
The Cougars, who led 40-36 at halftime, rallied from 9 down with 11 minutes left in regulation, and had a chance to go up 3 with 30 seconds left but Dominique Johnson’s trey from left wing rimmed out and Westmont had the final 25 seconds to go for the game-winning shot. However, a pair of Chris Jackson running floaters in the paint wouldn’t fall in the last 10 seconds, forcing overtime with the score knotted at 77-77.
“Westmont was out of timeouts at the end of regulation,” said Leslie, “and a month ago I would have called a timeout, caring more about setting up our defense than giving them a play. With our maturity now, I knew our guys could make a stand defensively. We started to figure out how to guard them, so actually I had a lot of confidence in our defense late in the game.”
Once in the extra frame, Burgess and Owens knocked down jumpers to give the Cougars a quick 4-point lead and when Johnson did bury a 3-ball from the left wing Azusa Pacific found itself up 6 at 84-78 with 1:33 remaining.
Westmont, which was playing without its second-leading scorer Andrew Schmalbach, cut the deficit to 3 on its next 2 possessions, missing a free throw along the way. Then with 11 seconds left, All-GSAC forward Dan Rasp knocked down a 10-foot jumper in the paint, and the Warriors found themselves down 1 with Rasp headed to the line following a Mike Caffese foul on the made shot.
Rasp’s potential game-tying free throw banged the back iron, and Owens wrestled the rebound from teammate Mason Maynard, securing his spot at the opposite free throw line with 8 seconds remaining.
“It was a fight between Reggie and Mason to get that ball,” said Leslie, “and I’m glad Reggie took it from him. No one on our team has a doubt when Reggie steps to the free throw line.”
Owens, who hadn’t attempted a free throw since knocking down 2 after Westmont Coach John Moore was slapped with a technical foul with 1:41 left in the first half, calmly sank the game-clinching pair. Jackson missed a long 3 from the right wing at the final horn.
“I told the guys at shoot around today how many times in a row that we’ve beaten Westmont,” said Leslie. “We ended their season here last year. Every player on every level always remembers their last game and who knocked them out. If you get a chance to play that team again, you’re ready. I knew we would get a good effort from Westmont.”
Westmont, which has struggled at the line throughout the year, clanked 11-of-21 free throw attempts, including 5 in the final 10 minutes of the game. Meanwhile the Cougars converted 10 of their 13 free throws.
It appeared the Warriors’ weakness at the line wouldn’t be an issue when Westmont used a 17-2 run to turn the tables and assume a 58-49 lead on a Matt LeDuc put-back midway through the second half. The Warriors’ zone defense stifled Azusa Pacific’s offense, forcing the Cougars to go scoreless on 7 straight possessions.
“That’s a hard zone to score on,” said Leslie. “Westmont is a long athletic team, and they’re very disciplined in how they guard with the zone. In the half court our scoring percentage was probably pretty weak tonight.”
Burgess, who was 4-for-8 from the arc on the way to the second 20-point game of his career, snapped the Cougars out of the Warrior headlock with back-to-back treys.
“A shooter who knows how to play basketball is never going to have a hard time getting open looks against a zone,” said Leslie. “Zone us. Caleb is going to get shots.”
With 5 minutes left in regulation, Johnson drained a long 3-pointer from the right side and was fouled by Rasp. Johnson made the free throw, and Azusa Pacific had the lead again at 72-71. The 2 teams traded the lead 4 more times and tied it another 3 times, including the last in regulation at 1:54 following a Rasp jumper.
Johnson finished with 19 points and a game-high 8 assists. Owens collected a career-high 6 steals, all in the first half when Westmont committed a whopping 13 turnovers (against just 5 after halftime).
Leduc led Westmont with 20 points, including 13 in the second half, and Rasp added 16 points and 11 rebounds.
With the win Azusa Pacific improves to 14-6 overall, 7-3 in the GSAC. Westmont falls to 13-6 overall, 5-5 in the GSAC.